Wilson conviction exposes Australian bishops’ lack of contrition

In January this year, a friend took his own life while suffering psychological torture that was apparently caused by a priest sexually abusing him in Newcastle more than 40 years ago.

I think of him when I reflect on Adelaide Archbishop Philip Wilson’s conviction this week for covering up the claim of another sexual abuse victim in that diocese around the same time.

Nothing is known of the circumstances of my friend’s sexual abuse. But I can’t help wondering that if church personnel in positions of authority had routinely acted on knowledge or suspicion of sexual abuse, he might have been spared the suffering that led to his suicide.

Instead they failed to act because priority was given to preserving the good name of the church. There was a culture of arrogance that appeared to value the integrity of the institution ahead of the welfare of the people it purported to serve.

Unfortunately it appears - to me at least - that there has been a lack of fundamental change in the attitude of the Australian bishops as a body.

Yesterday a friend wrote in an open Facebook post addressed to the Australian bishops: ‘If it were appropriate for every one of Chile’s Bishops to tender their resignations to the Holy Father, why is it appropriate that a convicted criminal ... retains his position [as Archbishop of Adelaide]?’

He was referring to the Chilean bishops’ recent acceptance of their failings and their offer to resign. Pope Francis had accused them of destroying evidence of sexual crimes, putting pressure on investigators to downplay abuse accusations and showing ‘grave negligence’ in protecting children from paedophile priests.

According to testimony heard by the Royal Commission, that is exactly what took place in Maitland-Newcastle Diocese under Bishop Leo Clarke. Clarke was Archbishop Wilson’s superior at the time, and Archbishop Wilson was required to dance to his tune.

As it happens, Archbishop Wilson did decide to step down late yesterday. But only after dragging his feet and being supported in doing so by Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference President Archbishop Mark Coleridge.

Why was it left to Archbishop Wilson - with his understandable lack of objectivity - to decide on such a crucial matter? How could it be that a convicted criminal was allowed to continue to serve as Archbishop of Adelaide and to make that decision himself? Surely Archbishop Coleridge should have  publicly exhorted him to stand down immediately after his conviction, if not before (Coleridge does not have the authority to remove him).

Moreover I interpreted Archbishop Coleridge’s short statement after Wilson’s conviction as a slapping down of the criminal justice system and, by implication, the victims whom it had vindicated. Why was it relevant for Coleridge to mention in such a brief document that Archbishop Wilson ‘maintained his innocence throughout this long judicial process’? To me, Archbishop Coleridge appeared to be publicly questioning his colleague’s criminal conviction.

As a recent President of the Bishops Conference, Archbishop Wilson was a leading light in the Bishops’ attempts to implement programs and policies to protect children at risk. He seems to be of good character. However the court has decided that he has a criminal past that he must atone for.

If I ask myself whether I want him to go to jail, I have to say yes. If he doesn’t, there will be little or no justice for those whom he failed all those years ago. They are individuals who remind me of my clergy sex abuse victim friend who did not receive justice and took his own life.

Where I'm also at home

Yesterday I returned to Paris after spending a few days visiting my sister across the English Channel in Kent. 

I’m here for less than two days before leaving Sydney in the morning. I’ll be there until I travel to Paris again, for two months from September.

Before I departed England, my sister asked me what it felt like to be going home. I thought she meant Sydney, but she insisted she was referring to my ‘home’ in Paris.

I’m in a space I ‘own’ but I’m only ever here on a tourist visa and I hardly speak the language. So I haven’t thought of it as ‘home’.

But she got me thinking about what we mean when we say we are at home.

Today I had a few thoughts while reading back over an invitation I received recently from an Australian friend who is organising a six day spiritual but non-religious personal awareness retreat in rural France in August.

The intention is for the participants to find their ‘authentic selves’. 

To some people, a phrase like that is just another piece of new age jargon. The retreat is not meant for them. 

My friend and the retreat leader have in mind people who have might have undergone life changes such as leaving a long-term relationship. Or perhaps jumping into the void from an all consuming work life. 

We might once have felt ‘at home’ in our former circumstances. But change – either chosen or forced – challenges us to recalibrate where we feel at home. 

To do this, most of us need to gain perspective by breaking out of whatever shell that could be preventing us from reaching a deeper level of awareness.

I’m not going to the retreat, but I have been working at living life at this deeper level. 

My minimalist lifestyle here in Paris enables me to be at home here because a deeper awareness takes the place of the material ‘stuff’ in my house in Sydney. Living part-time in my tiny room on the other side of the world completes my sense of self.

I’m not ready to burn the books on my Sydney bookshelf that are a monument to my past. But they represent almost all stages of my life and act as a powerful symbol that stares down at me every day and can hold me back if I let it. 

There is in fact much that I cherish about my past. But I need time out from the books and the other things in my house – to be in my other home – in order to be who I am at this stage of my life. 

The size of my Paris room is intentionally too small for me to accumulate things. Instead I’m relying on my inner resources for that all important sense of self. 


Link: I am that I am Retreat

My visit to the former Soviet republic of Georgia

I’m a few days into my week in Tbilisi, the capital of the former Soviet Georgian republic. With its picturesque architecture and natural surrounds, as well as a lively cultural and gastronomic buzz, it seems set to become a tourist hotspot some time in the near future.

Tbilisi architecture

One of Georgia’s claims to fame is the invention of wine some 6000 years ago. A wine geek friend told me that it is a wine geek’s paradise and to look out for the orange coloured white wine made using the traditional Georgian method that retains the skins and stems of the grapes.

I found it in a wine and cheese shop in a back street, where the owner told me he makes his own and is particularly ‘proud’ of the cheeses he also makes.

I’ve noticed the Georgians seem very proud of their culture and history. But it’s obvious that this is not to be admired in every instance.

Yesterday I took a one hour train trip to the town of Gori, which is the birthplace of the feared and discredited Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

Georgian orange wine

Locals are still proud of him, although they did remove his statue from the main square in 2010. However two years later, the municipal assembly voted against changing the one-sided pro-Stalin perspective of the Joseph Stalin Museum.

A banner with these words had been placed at the entrance: ‘This museum is a falsification of history. It is a typical example of Soviet propaganda and it attempts to legitimise the bloodiest regime in history’. The banner was subsequently removed.

Gori – and its main street that is still named ‘Stalin Street’ – has a noticeably ‘Soviet’ feel to it when compared with Tbilisi. 

The woman at Gori railway station sternly refused to sell me a ticket to return to Tbilisi because I couldn’t produce my passport. At Tbilisi station, the woman selling tickets had asked for my passport but bent the rule, obviously imbued with a western-style customer service imperative. 

In Tbilisi the pro-west hero of the 2003 Rose Revolution, President Mikheil Saakashvili, showed his enthusiasm for Western institutions and politicians by renaming the road from the airport George W. Bush Avenue.

Zurab Tsereteli Brothers

But Saakashvili is gone and the works in the Zurab Tsereteli retrospective currently on display in the  Museum of Modern Art could be seen as a cultural bridge between Russia and the west.

The 84 year old painter, sculptor and architect – who controversially supported Putin on Ukraine – is Georgia’s best known living artist. 

In some ways his ‘monumental’ style reminded me of some of the art I'd seen earlier in the day at the Stalin Museum. It has the bright colours and distorted perspective of Russian folk art in combination with influences of the avant-garde of 20th century Europe.

With the current lack of any political bridge between Russia and the West, at least there’s some consolation in seeing a cultural bridge in Tsereteli’s art, and also in the general ambience of Tbilisi.

When the church and aristocracy lost their influence

Yesterday afternoon I ventured into the Marais for one of my typically aimless walks. I like to explore back streets in particular, and never know what I will see or discover. In one of those streets I came across a mid-size museum I’d never heard of, the Cognacq-Jay.

It is among the 14 Paris museums run by the public institution known as Paris Musées. It’s billed as a museum of ‘18th century taste’, a reference to style and outlook rather than food. 

I’d never before been to a museum of ‘taste’, and most of the visitors are probably not so interested in that descriptor because it’s clear that the Cognacq-Jay’s contents are entirely paintings, sculpture and ornaments. 

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But it intrigued me, as I’m most interested in social history. I like viewing art works  not as ends in themselves but as reflections of the lives of people and sub-cultures of a given time or place. 

What distinguishes particular peoples is what they regard as being in fashion at their moment in time. That is their common taste and it is reflected in the style of their collective lives and possessions. 

When entering the museum, I thought to myself that I’m not so interested in the 18th century, as it was the 20th century that most shaped my own life and culture. But I was wrong.

I learned that the 18th century was known for the diminishing influence of the church and aristocracy as all powerful entities that dominated people’s lives. There was the rise of a middle class consisting of tradesmen, administrators and artists who were claiming a voice and power for themselves. 

These changes were reflected in the art of the portrait, which established the role of the individual’s own personality. Spontaneity and openness were dominant in the paintings and sculptures of the 18th century.

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These people were fascinated by ways of life in other parts of Europe and beyond. Some embarked on the Grand Tour, while others were taken up with exoticism or the idea of ‘elsewhere’ (e.g. India and China) and its magic and curiosities, as well as the discovery of new species.

According to notes accompanying the displays in one room, ‘The import of new exotic products such as spices, drinks and craft objects, brought about changes in consumer habits that blended European culture with imported items’.

As I see it, the church and aristocracy were not being replaced, but instead invited to play a part in the lives of the people alongside the new influences from outside. If they chose not to play ball, they would be ignored by the mainstream. 

Churches and the aristocracy can still be dismissive of taste and values other than their own, and also the blending of various spiritual and cultural influences that has become the norm. It was therefore clear to me the continuing relevance of the explosion of taste in the 18th century. 

Living austerity in Paris

Over the past few days I’ve had contact with a friend with whom I’d been out of contact for most of the past 15 years. She has been intrigued by a few life decisions I’ve made in recent years, including my decision to retire at the age of 55 and to buy a tiny five square metre room in Paris to live here for four months of the year.

I’d depicted the room as austere, and indicated that’s the way I like it ‘for the moment’.  I think she interpreted what I’d said to mean that I might have plans for a major renovation at some stage, or to use the room as a stepping stone towards the eventual purchase of something larger with more luxury.

Natural Light

But the truth is that I sense I’ve reached a stage of life where I’m able to live comfortably ‘in the moment’. I like to think that I – and many of us – am already living the dream, and my particular gift is the realisation that I’m doing just that. 

I’ve learned that there’s no point in envying others. It’s likely they envy us as well. I have one friend whom I envy because he speaks perfect French. He envies me because my circumstances allowed early retirement.

I wouldn’t absolutely rule out a grander Paris living space at some time in the future, but it’s simply not on my mind.  That’s the point of living for the moment. It’s related to a mindfulness and the savouring of what is available to our senses now. 

My previous two month stay followed my taking possession of the room last October. It was taken up with emptying the room of somebody else’s ‘stuff’ and furnishing it with what I felt I needed such as a microwave, a slow cooker and a Japanese futon bed-chair.

However those things are ephemeral compared to what I’ve come to cherish as the room’s best asset other than its central geographical location. That is its position at the top and back of the building. This brightens the room with a generous amount of natural light and ensures I get a good night’s sleep despite being in the vicinity of many bars and restaurants. My Fitbit watch data tells me I’ve been sleeping eight hours on average, compared with six and a half in Sydney. 

I also feel good about being able to climb to the sixth floor many times a day without breathing more heavily than normal. It’s a constant reminder that working on my physical fitness has a purpose. 

Obviously there will be come a time in my life when this will no longer be the case. That will be another moment. But for now I am consumed by this one.

Bee emergency in Paris spring

I’ve failed to time my visits to Japan to coincide with the cherry blossoms that are out at the moment. But this week the chestnut blossoms depicted in the song April in Paris are charming both locals and visitors alike, with standing room only in the city’s parks and gardens.

Spring weather is of course variable, and this is the first week I’ve been able to cast aside the winter jacket for shorts and t-shirt. It was 28 degrees yesterday, with similar temperatures predicted until the middle of next week when it will dip ten degrees and we’ll once again be pulling our winter jackets from the wardrobe.  

Reading books in the park

It means a lot to me because I felt challenged by the sub zero temperatures and the snow in my neighbourhood on the day of my arrival on 18th March. Those who live here or visited earlier in the year had to endure floods, low temperatures and constant rain. Now it is possible to detect a definite upward swing in their spirits.

Yesterday I walked through a few parks in an effort to capture something of this mood. I’d wondered what Parisians do in springtime and thought I might see vigorous physical demonstrations of their love for each other.

But it turned out that it was the bees that were in springtime overdrive, seemingly upsetting public order by getting too excited by the blossoms. As I walked through the Luxembourg Gardens, I witnessed a bee emergency underway. 

Apiculteurs au travail

There was a large area roped off and teams of beekeepers in helmets and white baggy suits trying to bring the situation under control, whatever that involves. It had never occurred to me that blossoms could be the cause of such consternation.

Nevertheless visitors on the other side of the gardens near the Luxembourg Palace seemed unfazed. They were enjoying the weather chatting, reading and, of course, watching each other.

When you spend time in colder climates, you notice that the contrast of the seasons can be much more pronounced than it is in Sydney and parts of Australia further north. In my view, it’s something to be cherished.

Luxembourg Gardens

In Australia there are increasing attempts to beat seasonality, for example selling cherries imported from California in winter. I buy them although I don’t like what such availability represents.

I’ve noticed that the fruit and vegetables available in the shops in Paris tend to be those that are in season. At the moment the large white asparagus are everywhere. Next month it’s strawberries, eggplants, cucumbers, turnips and cauliflower. If you let it, seasonality brings variety in addition to the mood swings.

 

The art of making a spectacle of ourselves

I’d been wondering why many French cafés have lines of outdoor seats facing the street. I haven’t seen it elsewhere and it has seemed odd to me. 

Yesterday I realised that its purpose is to enable the café’s patrons to get a clear view of people walking along the street.

Paris caf chairs facing the street

In other cultures, people watching tends to be frowned upon. It’s seen as voyeurism, an invasion of another person’s space and privacy, or at least failing to mind your own business. But for the French, it’s celebrated as an important dimension of the interplay between human beings. 

You don’t have to have business to transact with a person in order to look at them. An active gaze at someone is a statement in response to the way that person has often deliberately projected a particular energy or visual aspect. It might lead to an exchange of words or more, but usually it’s just as fruitful if it doesn’t. 

It’s about performance and spectacle and etching yourself into the consciousness of others. To do that, something about your dress or accessories or movement needs to stand out from the crowd.

Instinctively I do the opposite, so that I blend into the crowd. It’s how I was brought up. I delude myself into thinking that I am not being people watched, and that that’s the way it should be. 

But yesterday I realised that nobody in the streets of a big city is anonymous, and that that’s a good thing. It was when a woman came up to me to express admiration of my Australian-designed Crumpler loose fabric draw string backpack. She had people watched me, and in this case it had led to a conversation, about how she might be able to buy one for herself.

Then in an art gallery, an older woman who was an attendant gazed at me. But not in a way that suggested a suspicion that I might damage or steal an artwork. There was a slight smile and a facial expression approaching awe. I interpreted it as a compliment. 

I had looked admiringly at the smart bright yellow shawl she was wearing, and perhaps she had noticed my notice of her and was reciprocating. I will never know. But it is an intriguing pleasure to wonder about it.

I think the lesson is that we don’t need to hold back when we find ourselves drawn to look at somebody who, in our estimation, stands out. They have made themselves up, precisely because they like to be looked at, and it is a source of satisfaction for them that another person has noticed them.

The French put great store in the quality of their presence in the street or at a public event. It’s almost sacramental. It’s about performance in a culture that esteems performers. 

They would not think much of parents in other cultures who admonish their children for ‘making a spectacle’ of themselves.

The act of making a spectacle of ourselves and being noticed is not an escape from reality. Instead it’s an embrace of the world, and indeed the perfect cure for melancholia, depression, and poor self-esteem.

 

The Paris district most like Sydney's Newtown

Recently my neighbour invited me to a party for his girlfriend’s birthday. He introduced me to a male friend who works on the Paris staff of an Australian based organisation. 

The friend had just returned from a visit to head office in Sydney and told me that my neighbourhood – Newtown – was the part of Sydney he most appreciated. He was even able to name the restaurant he’d dined at.

My neighbour asked him what locality in Paris is most like Newtown. The 11th arrondissement was his reply.

So I decided that I had to put the 11th arrondissement on my bucket list of places to visit before I return to Australia next month. 

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This up and coming district on the right bank is described as one of the most densely populated parts not only of Paris, but of any European city. It is known for its high concentration of fashionable cafés, restaurants and nightlife, as well as a range of boutiques and galleries. 

To most Australians, its most recognisable establishment would be – sadly – the Bataclan rock music venue, where 90 people were killed in the coordinated terrorist attack in November 2015.

I decided that yesterday was the day for my walk to the 11th arrondissement, which is 30 minutes from my room in the First arrondissement, essentially on the other side of the Marais. I set out around midday, and passed the Bataclan theatre on my way to rue de Charonne. 

My research had suggested that rue de Charonne would remind me of King Street Newtown, and it did. It’s a long street, gentrified at one end with the feel of grunge at the other. 

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There were the expected restaurants and cafés and clothes shops. But what struck me most was the number of what we call ‘old wares’ shops. They’re the businesses that sell secondhand items to people wising to give their often nondescript apartment spaces the ambience of a particular past era they like to romanticise. Romance is of course very important to Parisians.

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What topped off my comparison was rue de Charonne’s location in the vicinity of a remarkable cemetery, Le Cimetière du Père Lachaise. King Street Newtown is a few hundred metres from the historic Camperdown Cemetery, which is listed by the state Heritage Council.

The Père Lachaise, which was named after Louis XIV’s Jesuit confessor, is the largest and most visited cemetery in Paris. It is home to the graves of many famous people. In the short time I had before my return walk, I looked at the tombs of Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison.

 

On the edge of my linguistic comfort zone

On Saturday I returned to Paris after my week in Sicily. 

I thought I would avoid the frustration of waiting up to 25 minutes for an airport bus by walking to Catania airport, which should be not much more than an hour from the city on foot. However Google Maps failed me and I found myself outside a remote and sleepy corner of the airport far from Departures, even though I had selected the ‘Departures’ option it had given me.

Luckily there was some passing traffic and I was able to attract the attention of a kind local, who drove me to Departures in good time for the boarding call.

During that moment of panic, I found myself speaking what seemed fluent Italian, to explain my situation to my new best friend and express my gratitude to him for saving me from missing my flight. 

He appeared to understand exactly what I was saying, as did others I’d had dealings with in Italian during my time in Sicily. When I arrived at the airport at the beginning of the week, the bus ticket vendor I approached for my ticket to Ragusa pointed to another booth that was not attended. 

Non c’e nessuno! was my spontaneous reaction to him (there’s nobody there).

I was proud of the language skill I did not realise I had. Like most Australians with a tenuous grip on a foreign language, I usually construct my thoughts in English before translating them into the other language.

It reminded me of my long history with the Italian language. In Year 9 at school, Father Ferruccio Romanin offered lunchtime Italian classes. I think he was the one who planted non c’e nessuno in my unconscious, where it has remained for more than 40 years.  

He gave me a good grasp of the basics, which I was able to build on later when I did a year’s Italian language at university and then a crash course much later when I went to work for the Jesuit Refugee Service in Rome at the beginning of 1997.

However despite all the effort, I never grasped the language in any serious sense. My Italian was regarded - affectionately - as a joke among my work colleagues and my fellow volunteers at the refugee hospitality centre. My tendency to translate Australian and other English idioms literally would both baffle and amuse them.

Now, in Paris, I find myself having to suppress the tendency for Italian words and phrases to come up like weeds and strangle my attempts to respond to people in French. 

Almost daily, the receptionist at the gym will greet me with ‘Ça va?’ (How’s it going?) I will either utter the Italian response ‘Bene grazie’, or spend all my mental energy trying to suppress it and not be able to find the words to respond in French.

Recently I have started to comfort myself with the existentialist thought that my grasp of language, and limited ability to acquire new language skills at my age, is what it is. In other words, it’s part of my character and personality as an Australian with good English skills venturing outside my linguistic comfort zone to explore life in foreign cultures.

Enjoying Sicilian street food

I’m with my sister and brother in law in Catania, the largest city on the east coast of Sicily. They’ve come here from their home in England’s south-east. 

She enjoys cooking, and her idea of a holiday is to take a serviced apartment near an interesting food market and use the kitchen to prepare a nice meal herself, rather than rely exclusively on restaurants.

What caught her attention at the market yesterday were the wedge clams. They’re a species of small shellfish native to the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts of western Europe. They’re known here as telline, and are similar to pippies in Australia.

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She cooked them in a pan with garlic and olive oil and we enjoyed the dish as an entree with a glass of Sicilian rose. She was trying to reproduce part of a sensational meal we enjoyed last May at the home of a former Australian work colleague of mine outside Nîmes in the south of France. 

After returning from the market, my sister had thought she’d bought too many of the wedge clams. She was proved wrong.

These past days I’ve had in my mind the phrase ’Sicilian street food’. It’s because of a tiny cafe called Ballaro that opened late last year in King Street, Newtown, not far from my home in Sydney. The cafe describes its offering as ‘authentic Sicilian street food’. 

This includes snacks such as arancine, the deep-friend rice balls with various succulent fillings that I see everywhere around here. There are also the tubular cannoli pastries. The filling is ricotta cheese, with a generous quantity of sugar. The one I enjoyed in Ragusa had ground pistachio nuts at each end.

Perhaps the most vivid food memory I will take away with me is also the simplest. When I first arrived, I was provided with a large bowl of oranges and lemons from the garden of the parents of my airbnb host.

As I wasn’t planning to do any cooking, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with the four or five lemons. I thought I’d squeeze a glass of orange and lemon juice, and accidentally learned that Sicilian lemons - these ones at least - are sweet enough to eat in the way we’re accustomed to consuming oranges. 

So for breakfast this morning, I bought a lemon and two oranges from a vendor in a small truck parked outside the apartment building. The oranges turned out to be blood oranges, which are currently in season. 

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This afternoon I returned and bought a bag of six of the blood oranges for a euro. Almost immediately, I sat down to eat one read about them online. They’re of the ‘tarocco’ variety that are famed for their sweetness and juiciness. As a bonus, they have the highest vitamin C content of any orange variety grown in the world, mainly on account of the fertile soil surrounding Mt Etna.